Karate: The Next Big Thing?
In recent years, karate, and arts like it, have come in for plenty of criticism with regards to their lack of realism. On the whole, I have to say that much of this criticism is fully justified! I think most karateka, if they are totally honest with themselves, will agree that much of karate practise is strongly geared towards the aesthetics of choreographed karateka vs. karateka 'battles' or modern sport. Nothing wrong with this in itself, the problem only arises when 'aesthetics' and 'sport' get intentionally or unintentionally passed off as, or confused with, the traditional fighting art of karate.
When people see 'aesthetics' and 'sport' presented as combat, it is immediately apparent that karate (or at least the version of it that has been presented) is lacking in many regards eg, the lack of realistic distance, the lack of realistic scenarios, the fixation on long-range striking to the exclusion of everything else, the lack of effective power generation etc. Now don't get me wrong, after two decades of being a karateka, I'm still proud to be so and karate remains my art of choice. However, my pride in my art does not allow me to turn a blind eye to the combative shortcomings in the way the art is most commonly practised.
The reason I've stood by karate is that I, as a pragmatist, believe it to be a highly-potent art; and I'm not alone in this. Indeed, world renowned realist Geoff Thompson, himself a 6th dan karateka, referred to karate as, 'possibly and probably the deadliest of arts (once fully realised)' in the foreword to my 'Karate's Grappling Methods' book. The key of course is to ensure that we 'fully realise' the art of karate and make use of the full range of combative techniques and concepts recorded within the karate katas, as opposed to the limited techniques promoted by much of modern practise.
In my books, DVDs and articles, I've covered in great length the nature of karate as recorded by the katas and I'm pleased to say that my approach to kata has proved popular. One of the most gratifying things for me is that the seminars I teach are not just attended by karateka looking to find meaning in their katas, but also by practitioners of other martial systems looking to add aspects of karate to what they already do. Personally, I believe there to be great value in looking at what other arts have to offer. I frequently train with practitioners of other disciplines in order to enhance my skills, and I think it's fantastic that karate, an art that was 'written off' by many, is now being embraced for what it can offer (in its fullest context) by a growing number of open-minded cross-training realists.
So in it's 'purest form' (the pragmatic application of the methods recorded in the katas) karate would seem to have plenty to offer to the contemporary world of martial arts. The karate of the katas is simple, direct and wide-ranging; and this is very appealing to the pragmatically biased martial artist, regardless of style or styles. Although some karateka refuse to remove the blinkers, and therefore continue to receive valid criticism for practicing karate in a very limited and non-functioning way, a growing number of martial artists are beginning to appreciate that perhaps the criticisms directed towards karate as a whole were a little 'off target'.
The combative criticisms directed towards 'aesthetic karate' or 'sport karate' are valid, but then again those versions of karate were never intended for combat! However, the karate of the katas was specifically designed for civilian self-protection. All systems have their weak areas, and karate is no exception. However, karate definitely has plenty of positives to offer the martial arts community. In addition to simplistic combative methods, karate also has plenty to offer when it comes to training methods. One such training method, although it may not seem like it, is the way in which karateka drill their basics.
'Line-work' or 'basics' is another area of karate training that has been much criticised. The practise has been slighted for its lack of realism or relevance to combat. Indeed, there is even a growing number of karateka who have abandoned line-work completely. Again, not all of this criticism is without merit. Line-work is a relatively modern method of practise and therefore you'd be quite correct is stating that the practice is not 'traditional' and only arose as the emphasis on karate training shifted from 'function' to 'form' and 'fitness'. However, both form and fitness remain a base requirement of effective fighting skills and therefore we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss a method that can help promote both.
There can be little doubt that simply marching up and down the room, punching and kicking the air will do little to increase fighting skills on its own. However, if we ensure that our line-work is intense enough (as in VERY intense) it will develop physical fitness and mental intensity. It will also ensure that the fundamentals of good form are learnt, maintained and advanced. We obviously also need to practice those techniques against impact equipment and live non-compliant opponents, but line work will help ensure that the fundamental technique is of a good standard.
One of the effects of increased cross-training, aside from greater availability of information and more pragmatically biased training, has been a negative effect on the standard of technique. I'm obviously not referring to those high-level cross-trainers who have highly-polished techniques at all ranges, but those who in their quest for pragmatism never study any art in sufficient depth eg they train infrequently in many arts or only spend a short amount of time studying one art before moving onto the next.
It should always be remembered that for self-protection you don't need many techniques. It's a small number of well-honed and well-practiced core techniques that will allow you to defend yourself effectively. It is here that some modern 'cross-trainers' fall short, in that none of their skills are well-honed or well-practiced. One of the positives of karate training is that we constantly drill the fundamental motions in our line-work. During line-work there is no opponent to worry about so we can fully devote ourselves to ensuring that our motions are millimetre perfect. Our techniques are therefore extremely polished and, providing that we build upon that base, we have the potential to be extremely effective.
Line-work is not the only way to drill technique. You can and should also drill your techniques during pad drills, bag work etc. However, line-work can prove a useful part of the whole. A few years ago I was running some of the children I teach through the basics (line-work) that they needed for their upcoming grading. A relative of one of the children came up to me at the end of the class and started to ask loads of questions about line-work; it's purpose, how frequently we did it, the differing ways of structuring it etc. He then explained that he was a boxing coach and he was now interested in using line-work as part of his coaching in order to improve the basic punching skills of some of those he coached. We had a chat about the various ways in which it could work and he then left enthusiastic and exited about this 'new' and 'innovative' training method. A few weeks later he returned to explain that the line-work went down really well! For the last few weeks, he'd line everyone up at the start of each training session and run them through some combinations before moving on to other forms of practice. The boxing coach told me that he'd already noticed an improvement in the punching skills of some of his 'less gifted' people, which he put down to the fact that they were able to concentrate exclusively on their technique and had no 'distractions' (partner, focus mitt, punch bag etc). As far as I know, his boxers are still practising line-work.
To reiterate, I'm in no way saying that line-work on its own is an effective way of training. What I am saying is that as part of the whole it can help to provide the base upon which pragmatic fighting skills can be built. In my approach to karate, there are four stages of practise that I believe will ensure that the karateka will develop meaningful fighting skills; the first of these stages is good solo form, and line-work is a fantastic way to develop these base skills. How to progress beyond the solo form is not within the scope of this article and I'd refer you to my books and videos if you'd like to know more. In particular, you should consult "An Introduction to Applied Karate" which can be downloaded for free from this website.
All the evidence suggests that karate is turning a corner. As more and more people return to practising karate as the wide-ranging system recorded within the katas and the writings of the past masters, karate is beginning to find its place in contemporary martial arts. The justified combative criticisms of karate as a whole do not generally apply to the 'original karate' as recorded in the katas (not that karate is perfect; no art is). I also feel that a growing number of martial artists are beginning to appreciate the importance of thoroughly drilling basic techniques. And although line-work does have its limitations, I hope that the karateka who have abandoned line-work will begin to see karate's attention to detail as a worthwhile trait that some modern cross-trainers would also greatly benefit from.
It's not just the combative aspects that are increasing karate's appeal. The emphasis traditional karate places on character development and expanding beyond our perceived limitations is also finding favour in the wider martial arts community. Although other martial arts are every bit the equal of karate in this regard, karate does have a long and established tradition of developing the individual alongside their fighting skills. People are definitely more interested in this aspect of the martial arts than perhaps ever before. I'm pleased to say that my writings on karate as a fighting system have always received strong support; however, the most popular articles I've ever written - judging by the amount of feedback I receive - were all on how intense and pragmatic training can strengthen us, develop us as individuals and help us to lead the lives we want to live. Real combative skill is obviously highly prized by most martial artists; however I feel that those who emphasise fighting to the exclusion of everything else will find themselves left behind as the wider community begins to appreciate that our studies can offer us so much more than just enhancing our ability to break bones.
Anyone who has been involved in the martial arts for any length of time will be aware of 'martial fashions'. Although karate has been 'unfashionable' for the last few years, I feel that the tide is turning. Although just a personal view, I feel that karate as 'aesthetic art' and as a sport (I've great admiration for its participants, but in its current form it is way too complex for the layman to understand or appreciate) is unlikely to ever strike a chord with the general public. Of course there is not necessarily a link between popularity and value, but we do need to attract new people to karate if it is to continue and prosper. People are now more widely educated about the martial arts to accept 'aesthetics' or 'sport' as a true 'martial' art. I get numerous emails every week from karateka and ex-karateka informing me how disillusioned they are with these approaches to karate. However, that certainly does not mean karate as a whole is on the demise. The prevailing 'fashions' would indicate quite the contrary. The membership of my website, which is devoted to pragmatic karate, is growing at a startling rate. In the last eight weeks alone we've had over 500 new members join us from all over the globe! Interest in karate in its widest sense is defiantly on the rise.
With the advent of cross-training, karate's 'modern tradition' would seem to be on the decline. However, all the evidence that I see would suggest that interest in the 'true tradition' of pragmatic self-protection and self-development is on the rise. I don't believe that this will necessarily mean an immediate huge flood of new karate students; although I'm sure numbers will rise considerably over the next year or so for the clubs that emphasise pragmatic kata-based karate. What I do think we'll see, however, is a return throughout the martial arts to the 'traditional values', regardless of whether the arts being practised are traditional or modern mixed systems. Arts and systems that can offer self-protection and self-development are almost certain to find favour. Who knows, perhaps an approach like that of traditional karate, with its simplistic wide-ranging approach to combat, its great attention to highly-polished fundamental technique, and its tradition of self-improvement could very well be the next big thing?